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Learning Korean History at Seodaemun Prison

Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
     Like those on Virgil’s shore—
A wilderness of faces dim,
     And pale ones gashed and hoar.
-Herman Melville, from In the Prison Pen

During the day in Seoul, I sent my parents on the tourist trail to the places I had already seen–I had little interest in revisiting the palaces and museums, and I was less enthusiastic about waking up early on this vacation. I headed out on my own and caught up with my parents later in the day.Soedaemun Prison

I decided to stroll around on the sunny day to the west of Gyeongbokgung, the main palace, as I had never been in that direction. I expected to find more neighborhoods similar to Bukchon, but I was mistaken–the historic neighborhood ended and Seoul became almost boring for a stretch, but I could still enjoy the unfamiliar streets.

Independence Park

Independence Gate from across the busy street

After a fair distance wandering, I came to Seodaemun Independence Park and the arch to its entrance. At the time I only knew this as a park and nothing more, so I crossed the street to wander through and find what was there. I was attracted by the Independence Gate, which resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in its design (though much smaller).independence gate seoul

While, the main destination in the park, and more or less all I saw, is Seodaemun Prison History Hall, the park also has other monuments such as a statue of journalist and independence activist Soh Jai-pil. As I didn’t know what was in the park, I only took a brief look at everything before finding the large structure that is Seodaemun Prison History Hall.

Seoul indepedence park monument

Monument for those who fought for independence

The prison opened in 1908 just before Japanese occupation and was used to detain independence activists after 1910. Conditions were poor for the prisoners, and there is evidence of torture remaining at the site. The original design of the prison was for 500 people, but at it ended up with nearly 3000.Soedaemun Prison

Unlike the S-21 in Phnom Penh, Soedaemun Prison is more focused on history and the movement toward independence and democracy in South Korea, which makes this museum a bit less depressing and mentally exhausting.

Soedaemun Prison

One form of torture used during Japanese occupation

Of course, there are parts of the museum that showcase the inhumane treatment of those unjustly forced into the prison’s confines. There were some rooms that were too short to stand straight but too narrow to sit.

Soedaemun Prison

The exercise yard

Even the exercise yard was a form of isolation–the fan-shaped brick structure didn’t allow prisoners to communicate during their time outside. It shape also allowed guards to easily observe the inmates when they attempted to communicate.

Soedaemun Prison

There’s a fake guard above the cells

The most disturbing of sights at the museum was probably the corpse removal exit–a tunnel in a corner of the facility hidden from view of the prisoners. There was no indication as to whether it was still used after Japanese occupation.

Soedaemun Prison

Disposing of the executed prisoners

Some visitors, such as myself, would think that a prison for independence activists would have been shuttered after post-World War II independence. However, the South Korean government decided to maintain the prison for its own anti-government activists who protested the US-supported dictatorship. It even continued to be used until democratic reforms arrived in the country in 1987. It didn’t reopen as a museum until 1992.

Soedaemun Prison

Photos of prisoners who were once held there

While conditions at the prison supposedly improved after World War II, they weren’t much better. Prisoners continued to be tortured under a brutal regime, though much of the treatment of prisoners during that time was glossed over at the museum.

Soedaemun Prison

Martyrs Monument to those who died during Japanese occupation

Admission to the museum was only KRW 3,000, which at the time was less than $3. It was certainly a worthwhile find on my wandering journey through Seoul as I was able to learn a bit more about history.

Learning History at the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta

After getting off the bus at the wrong stop, switching buses and getting some help with directions from the bus stop attendant, I made my way to the first destination–the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta. It was my last full day in the city, I had planned on seeing some of the cultural sites within the city proper.

Yogyakarta road

View from the bus after getting a little lost

I hadn’t researched much about things to see within the city–my main purpose of the trip was to see Borobudur and Prambanan, the two major tourist attractions an hour outside Yogyakarta. I marked a few things down on my map as I walked through the city after my sunrise journey through those magnificent temples and asked hotel staff about where to go and what to see. The Sultan’s Palace was the only thing that was recommended.

Yogyakarta bus stop

My bus stop in Yogyakarta

Officially known as Kraton of Yogyakarta, the palace is a relatively small complex that is home to the sultan and his family. I was fortunate enough to run into a man, Imam Syafi’i, who works for a music school attached to the palace who offered to take me on a tour. He said he normally gives tours a couple days a week and I was just lucky that he was there that day because it wasn’t one of his normal days.Yogyakarta sultan's palace

The palace was first built in 1775. Then on June 20, 1812, Stamford Raffles (the same man who is revered in Singapore) led an invasion of Yogyakarta, which ended with the looting and burning of the palace. Today’s palace was mostly built during the reign of Sultan Hamengkubuwono VIII from 1921 to 1939.

Sultan's ceremonial space in Yogyakarta

This area was used for ceremonies for the royal family

Obviously because the palace is still used by the sultan and his family, I was only allowed to see the parts that are open to the public, including some exhibits that showcase traditional attire for various occasions.

The most interesting part of my tour wasn’t seeing the palace itself, but the stories my guide told. I was first informed that the sultan of Yogyakarta is not just a figurehead ruler–unlike in most former monarchies, the sultan here is the official governor of the region (Yogyakarta is considered a special administrative region of Indonesia). I was also told that the current sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, is the first to eliminate the practice of polygamy–my guide said that he is also the first generation of his family to have only one wife, which he said was more than enough. sultan's palace pillar

One of the more interesting aspects of the architecture of the Sultan’s Palace is design of the pillars that embrace the history of the region. At the bottom is the elephant’s foot, representing Hinduism. Above that is a lotus flower, representing Buddhism, which came to Yogyakarta after Hinduism. Finally, the pillar is painted green to represent Islam, the dominant religion of today.

Yogyakarta palace

Ceremonial platform

Of course, the funniest comment about culture that day was my guide’s story about the most recent royal wedding, which is likely the last one for quite some time. Tradition holds that the groom and a member of the royal family carry the bride on their shoulders. As my guide said, “The wedding broke tradition [pause] because the bride was too fat.” Apparently, the bride was almost twice the groom’s weight. There were no pictures of the wedding on display to verify this anecdote.

Royal Mosque of Yogyakarta

Royal Mosque of Yogyakarta

After finishing my tour of the Sultan’s Palace, I walked by Masjid Gedhe Kauman (Grand Mosque), which is open to the public. This is the royal mosque that was built in the 18th century. It was full of people milling about and sitting around in the shade to avoid the midday heat.

Royal Splendor in Phnom Penh

“In fact they were regents for a whole morning as crimson hangings were raised against the houses, and for the whole afternoon, as they moved toward groves of palm trees.”
Arthur Rimbaud, Royalty

I chose my cheap hotel based on its proximity to what I perceived as a desirable location in Phnom Penh. The night market, royal palace, central market, and riverside were all a short walk. When I arrived, I realized it was a rundown backpacker neighborhood with overpriced (by Cambodian standards) restaurants and an abundance of girl bars for the sex tourists. There were signs of development with higher-end restaurants and bars along the main road next to the riverside, but it would still take time to change the side streets.monks-street

A few blocks south of my hotel is the home of the King of Cambodia. The walk to the Royal Palace felt longer in the heat–there was little shade along the way to shield me from the sun. I also didn’t realize the entrance to the palace was at the far end from my hotel–the wide empty street in front of me was beautiful as I watch monks walking along, paying little attention to the opulence just nearby. The streets in the area were devoid of traffic as ongoing workers protests in the capital had forced some closures.

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

The Cambodian King is an elected figurehead, chosen from among members of the royal family over the age of 30. The current king, Norodom Sihamoni, ascended to the throne in 2012 after the death of Norodom Sihanouk, who was turned into a puppet figurehead by the Khmer Rouge and later went into exile during the years of Vietnamese-supported government; he was also the leader of the opposition government beginning in 1978 when Vietnam defeated Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. Norodom Sihanouk returned to the throne in 1993, two years after returning from 13 years of exile. In 2004, he went into self-exile in Pyongyang and Beijing and abdicated the throne.phnom-penh-royal-palace

The Royal Palace was built in 1866, when the king moved the capital to Phnom Penh from Oudong; it was designed by architect Neak Okhna Tepnimith Mak and constructed by the French Protectorate of Cambodia. 32 years before the palace was constructed, the Thai military razed Phnom Penh during its retreat. The Royal Palace was built on a citadel that was destroyed.phnom-penh-royal-palace1

The palace incorporates a mixture of architectural designs, including traditional Khmer, Thai, and European. The French gave the royal court a gift in 1876 known as the Napoleon iron pavilion, which supposedly stands out among the rest of the palace but I somehow missed seeing it (there are portions of the palace that are off limits to visitors). Over the years the palace was expanded and some buildings were even replaced.

Royal stupas and memorials

Royal stupas and memorials

There are portions of the Royal Palace I’m sure I missed. There isn’t much in the way of guide information as you wander through the grounds, unless you count the “Do Not Enter” signs. There are some identifying markers to tell visitors what each building is, however. Sometimes in the heat, you don’t notice the names or the meanings behind the buildings, such as the Silver Pagoda, that make you wonder why the names were chosen.

Silver Pagoda

Silver Pagoda

The buildings, stupas, and gardens all lend vibrant colors to the palace as tourists wander through the grounds; the colors can be almost blinding with the intense sun, which led me to hide in the shade for most of my time. There are even murals in need of restoration–there was some restoration of buildings, but I didn’t notice any work being done to protect the paintings. phnom-penh-royal-palace-mur

While not as impressive as the Royal Palace in Bangkok, the Cambodian King’s residence has its own charm and beauty. It’s a respite from the noise of the city, but a reminder of how detached life can be from reality–a short walk to the park will provide a glimpse of the slums just across the river.

The Throne Hall

The Throne Hall

As it was the last full day of tour through Cambodia, I relaxed the rest of the day and into evening–I wandered into better neighborhoods to witness the progress of development in the capital. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s brutal history lesson at S-21 and the Killing Fields and I wasn’t departing until late the next day. I attempted to enjoy the nightlife in my area and wound up with an insightful, yet depressing, conversation. The entire trip was my initiation into a world I knew little about–a juxtaposition of beauty, horror, wealth, and poverty.

Drinking a Singapore Sling at Its Birthplace

“Nobody in Singapore drinks Singapore Slings. It’s one of the first things you find out there.”
-Anthony Bourdain

I have never tasted a cocktail in a place in which it was invented. I don’t know if I ever will again. At least not at the price I paid in Singapore.

raffles hotel singapore

Raffles Hotel Singapore

It’s not that I haven’t had what most would consider original or unique cocktails–there was the cocktail the bartender gave me that wasn’t on the menu at Kolo Klub at the Pilsner Haus in Hoboken that had Aquavit and who-knows-what (it was tasty) and the ridiculous number of cocktails I sampled at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic–but I hadn’t had a cocktail in the place of its birth, in a place of legend.

When I arrived in Singapore for my short trip, I made a list of places I had to see. One of the top priorities was the Raffles Hotel–more specifically, it was the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel.

The opulent Raffles Hotel was built in the colonial style in 1887 by Martin and Tigran Sarkies; it was designated a national monument in 1987. During renovations from 1989 to 1991, the Long Bar was relocated to the shopping arcade area–the bar was supposedly relocated at other times throughout the hotel’s history. The Long Bar was patronized by literary greats like Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad (I was tempted to reread Heart of Darkness while sitting at the bar).long bar singapore

The Long Bar is exquisite; it exudes history and class (a societal class I apparently can’t quite afford). The style is reminiscent of the late British colonial era–the details of the bar and tables are there for the patrons to imagine a time before Singapore was a glossy international economic hub. The two-storey bar (second floor was closed when I was there) is supposed to be inspired by Malaysian plantations of the early 20th century. There are even bags of peanuts around the bar–and customers are reminded to just toss the shells on the floor; it’s the only place in Singapore where you’re allowed to litter.

Homer: Aw, $20, but I wanted a peanut.

Homer: Aw, $20, but I wanted a peanut.

This was where I had to order my first Singapore Sling. All I knew about the cocktail was that it’s sweet, and I don’t particularly enjoy cocktails that are too sweet. In honor of the cocktail’s invention 100 years ago by Ngiam Tong Boon, a bartender from China’s Hainan Province, the Long Bar had a menu full of variations of the Singapore Sling–there is no set recipe, so it’s easy to change the flavor. Of course, I ordered the original. It was good–refreshing and not too sweet for the heat and humidity of Singapore.

singapore sling

I better enjoy this now that I have no money in my wallet

I would’ve ordered a second one, but I couldn’t afford it; this was by far the most expensive cocktail I have ever ordered. The original Singapore Sling at the Long Bar costs S$32.95, including tax and service fees (at current exchange rates that’s $24.13). I took my sweet time sipping that cocktail and filling up on peanuts. To put this in perspective, I had a Grey Goose martini with my uncle at the Intercontinental Hotel overlooking Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong for about $18 (I didn’t pay for it)–they left the shaker, which was almost another half a glass, and a nice bowl of olives and nuts. long-bar-singapore2

For some reason, probably to save money on another metro ticket, I walked back to my hostel. I picked up a relatively inexpensive beer at the 7-Eleven next door before heading off to sleep in preparation for the next day’s adventures in Singapore.

I’ve had some impressive spirits and cocktails over the years, but is any cocktail really worth that much money? Would you go out of your way to overspend on one drink?

Wanderings in Assisi

“Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.”
The Counsels of the Holy Father St. Francis, Admonition 27

On my second weekend in Perugia, I decided to stay closer to town to see what sort of nightlife was around me. The previous weekend I saw nothing of my temporary home as I headed to Florence to get my fill of artistic culture and eat some new food. At the time I was working from 2am to noon, so I didn’t see much of the town’s life–feels a little odd having dinner when everyone else is just getting out of bed. To satisfy my desire to see the town, I only took a day-trip to Assisi, which is just a couple stops away. It was a bit of a religious pilgrimage for this non-religious traveler born into a different religion.assisi street

As I got off the graffiti-covered train, I found what I hoped to be the bus stop that would take me up into the hills of Umbria to the town–the walk up with the sun beating down would be too exhausting for an enjoyable day of tourism. While waiting for the bus, a Danish backpacker approached asking whether it was the bus into Assisi–we chatted while waiting and spent the day wandering the town as neither of us had a set plan of what to see; I only had a list of a few sights in town without a route to take me anywhere. He was also staying in Perugia, so we met up again later that day for drinks.rocca maggiore

As we reached Assisi, we headed up to the top of the hill to Rocca Maggiore. This medieval castle dates back to the late 12th century. It was expanded and rebuilt numerous times over the centuries–a few popes even commissioned construction. The castle attracts fewer tourists than the actual town, probably because fewer people want to make the trek up the hill and climb the narrow medieval staircases within it.

rocca maggiore

This hallway in Rocca Maggiore was not intended for claustrophobes

There isn’t much of great interest inside Rocca Maggiore, but it provides some amazing views of Assisi and the Umbrian countryside. There are a few exhibits with replicas of clothing, weaponry, and artwork, but nothing as interesting as the countless history museums throughout Italy. There’s also a long, narrow hallway that leads to the highest point of the castle for the best views–the hallway is narrow enough to make it difficult if two people are passing each other.assisi

Heading into the town helped us cool off in a bit of shade after the walk up the hill in the sun.

temple of minerva

Temple of Minerva

As we wandered through medieval streets toward the main square, we found the Temple of Minerva, which was converted into a Catholic church in the 16th century–the facade of the ancient Roman temple is beautiful, but the interior is uninspiring.

Basilica of Saint Francis

Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi

From the Temple of Minerva, we headed to Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, the main attraction for tourists to the town. The basilica was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000.

Interior of the Basilica of San Francesco

Interior of the Basilica of San Francesco

After visiting so many churches around Italy, I was exhausted (much like the temple fatigue I feel around Asia). The Basilica of St. Francis is, fortunately, a more inspiring church to reinvigorate tourists who have visited more than a few too many in their time around Italy. The paintings from the floor to the ceiling are beautiful.

Basilica of San Francesco

Friary at Basilica of San Francesco

The crypt houses the remains of St. Francis. The murals in crypt are more interesting and detailed than the ones in the church–they appeared to be more recent–but photography is not permitted in the crypt (it’s supposedly not allowed in the church either, but everyone was snapping pictures).


Assisi from Rocca Maggiore

While waiting for the train back to Perugia, my new Danish friend and I stopped off at McDonald’s for a McBeer (that wonderful €1 can of Peroni that for some reason was €3 when I got to Venice). While on the train, he asked if we had reached Perugia station and the woman next to him answered in Italian that it was. Having heard her speak Mandarin on her phone when we first got on the train, I thanked her in Mandarin and asked where she was from. She froze and slowly asked in English if I just spoke Chinese. I laughed and answered in Mandarin; I said goodbye and we headed off into town where I introduced the Dane to a craft beer bottle shop that sold Mikkeller Beer Geek Bacon, which is a wonderful beer that tastes more like coffee than bacon.

After a hot day of walking around Assisi and then enjoying a strong dark brew, we purchased some lighter beer and sat out in the main square of Perugia with the locals and tourists to watch the nightlife.

Biking to Osaka Castle

A few days in Osaka was more than enough to see everything in the city–there really isn’t much to do there. It did, however, provide me with more time to relax before heading back to Tokyo. Besides, Ema, the Italian owner of Vitti Lodge, was quite friendly and made staying in a cramped hostel room more bearable. (I realized that hostel dorms in Japan are much smaller than what I’m used to.) He also provided guests with free bikes to ride around the city (and the bike was a million times more comfortable than the broken one I had to pay for in Kyoto).osaka-castle-moat

I decided to not make the same mistake as I did in Kyoto and walk a few too many miles to see the sights and took the the bike on about a three-mile ride to Osaka Castle (actually, the ride was probably longer because I wasn’t sure where to turn and ended up on the wrong street).osaka-castle

The park around Osaka Castle is beautiful, with plenty of locals and tourists enjoying the paths on a sunny day. There are also small festivals every now and then with performances and food–I was fortunate enough to find such food on my bike ride after walking around the castle.

Osaka Castle is a picturesque building that attracts every tourist to Osaka, because there isn’t much else in the city other than that and food. This is a modern reconstruction of the castle on a smaller scale. The original Osaka Castle, which was constructed in 1583, was burned down and the structures that surrounded it were also destroyed. Only a few other buildings have been reconstructed on the grounds.

The largest stone was too big to destroy

The largest stone was too big to destroy

The castle first burned down in 1660 when a supply of gunpowder was struck by lightning. It was also destroyed in the 1800s during civil conflicts. It was again damaged during an Allied bombing raid in 1945. Other than the outer walls and moat, there is nothing left of the original structure. There are some huge stones that make up the fortification walls. Still, it’s a beautiful sight to see on a clear day. osaka-castle-crowd

Visitors are instructed to go to the top of the castle for the panoramic views of the city before walking down to each floor for exhibits about the history of Osaka Castle and the families that went to war for control over the country. The views of the city are spectacular, but you have to go to the nearby museums to get a better view of the

The museum is educational, but it can be difficult to go through all the exhibits with all the tourists visiting at the same time–it would be better to get there as early as possible to avoid the organized tours that pass through. Most visitors walk up to the top for the views of the city and quickly walk through the exhibits. Most Japanese tourists will read through the history on display.

Have you been to Osaka? What did you think of Osaka Castle?

Mr. Chiang’s Taipei

Everyone recognizes one structure in Taiwan, but that’s not the structure I visited–Taipei 101 is beautiful skyscraper that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Instead of paying a small fortune to ride an elevator near the top of that huge building, I opted for hiking up Elephant Hill for a better view of the city that included Taipei 101. Really, what other buildings in the city would you want to see? What other buildings are there to see from above?chiang-kai-shek-memorial1

That’s when I found the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. It is flanked by the National Concert Hall and National Theater, which are indistinguishable but beautiful. I don’t imagine it’s such a sight to see from far above in Taipei 101, but all three are wonderful structures to behold and walk around for half a day–and it helped me to escape a bit of light rain. It is also more colorful to see at night with the lights, especially when the little pandas are on display for added cuteness.chiang-kai-shek-memorial-pa

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is a monument for the former president and military leader of the Republic of China who was driven out of mainland China along with the rest of the Kuomintang by Mao Zedong’s communist army. Chiang died in 1975, ending martial law in Taiwan. Direct presidential elections in Taiwan were not held until 1996. chiang-guards

While history surrounding Chiang’s rule in mainland China and Taiwan is controversial to say the least, he is still revered as a great leader on the island. He does not secure the same reverence, however, as his predecessor Sun Yat-sen.changing-of-guard

Arriving at the memorial hall at the top of the hour, visitors are treated to the changing of the guard–every hour of the day (seems a bit excessive). A carefully choreographed ceremony that involves twirling and tossing firearms and plenty of stomping of boots. As a taller tourist, it’s easier to stand in the back and hold a camera above everyone else’s heads to record the ceremony.chiang-kai-shek-car

Inside the museum beneath the huge statue of a seated, benevolent Chiang Kai-shek visitors can learn a bit of history of the former leader’s military successes and relationship with Sun Yat-sen. You can even have your picture taken next to Chiang’s Cadillac. There’s also plenty of whitewashed Taiwanese political history that’s probably intended for the mainland Chinese tour groups.

Touring a Vietnamese Prison

From a half-mile away
trees huddle together,
& the prisoners look like
marionettes hooked to strings of light
Yusef Komunyakaa, from Prisoners

Tours around parts of Southeast Asia usually include lessons in modern history–the brutality of colonialism and war, and the struggles for independence. Nowhere else is the brutality so prevalent or recent than Cambodia, but Vietnam has its own horrors showcased for the world’s tourists to view.

The entrance to the Hanoi Hilton

The entrance to the Hanoi Hilton

There are more than a few museums dedicated to the Vietnam War that display the inhumanity of the weapons used on the citizens; the War Remnants Museum in Saigon has a floor dedicated to Agent Orange and its long-lasting effects on the environment and people. Of course, visitors have to be aware that certain details about the war are left out in an effort to properly retell the official Vietnamese government narrative of the illegal activities of the evil colonialists destroying the poor nation’s desire for peaceful unification.

On the day before my week-long trip to Cambodia, I headed to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi–it was a short walk from my hotel in the Old Quarter, but took a while to get to because of the traffic that sometimes blocks all attempts to navigate the narrow streets and unusable sidewalks. The exterior of Hoa Lo isn’t what one would expect of prison that housed the horrors of colonialism and war–it’s a large wall along the street that happens to have an entrance with a small ticket booth and sign indicating that it is some sort of tourist attraction. Had I not intended to visit this site, I probably would’ve walked right by it.

Memorial to the revolutionaries who fought against the French colonialists

Memorial to the revolutionaries who fought against the French colonialists

Most of the museum that was the prison focuses on the French colonial period. There are stories of those who were imprisoned for organizing their fellow countrymen to fight for independence, including some who were imprisoned multiple times after escaping through sewers. Their stories are meant to inspire visitors with their dedication to the cause for an independent and unified Vietnam.hoa-lo-art

There are also depictions and replicas of the torture methods employed by the French.hoa-lo-cells

And the dingy cells that were packed with emaciated prisoners.

Toward the end of the self-guided tour through Hoa Lo Prison, visitors are introduced to the Vietnam War era, when the prison was used to house POWs. Everything in this part of the museum focuses on the treatment of the American POWs by the Viet Cong–how everyone who passed through the doors was treated according the Geneva Conventions. There are even photos of American soldiers playing volleyball and decorating a small Christmas tree. If the photos tell the narrative of the POWs during the Vietnam War, then it isn’t ironic that it was dubbed the Hanoi Hilton.mccain-suit

They even have Sen. John McCain’s flight suit that was recovered when he was pulled out of Truc Bach Lake in 1967. McCain was held in Hoa Lo for five years, during which time he says he was severely tortured. All evidence of torture by the North Vietnamese has been removed from local history.

It may be full of propaganda, particularly for the latter part of the prison’s history, but Hoa Lo is still a worthwhile stop on a journey through Hanoi.

Look! More Ruins in Pompeii

Remember when I said that all the ruins in Rome start to look the same? Well, the same can be said about Pompeii.

On the advice of my friend from grad school, I told my parents that we should find a tour of Pompeii. It would be more organized and we’d get to see the Herculaneum on a full-day tour. Then we discovered that the full-day tours are only available twice a week, neither day was one that we were in Sorrento. We settled on the the half-day tour to just see Pompeii.


We figured it was worth the price just to avoid riding the Circumvesuviana again. Even the Italians believe this train is a piece of shit. It took almost an hour and a half from Naples to Sorrento along 30 stops on this privately-run train that was probably constructed by Mussolini and still uses the same cars with no air conditioning. The New York City subway looked better in the early 1980s. Yes, I got spoiled by the amazing trains in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea.

Mt vesuvius

Mt. Vesuvius in the distance

Instead of watching the wasteland pass by on the Circumvesuviana, we saw the coastline from the comfort of a tour bus. Our guide was friendly and humorous–he even made a point of telling us to not buy any souvenirs other than books. I didn’t bother buying anything, unless you count the free map at the entrance.

The portion of Pompeii that is open to tourists is large and only accounts for a small part of what was once a thriving city. Due to a lack of funds and local interest, the rest of Pompeii remains unearthed, but there have been promises made that sometime in the future excavations will resume (probably when the Circumvesuviana is replaced by something more modern like a donkey cart).

pompeii forum

Pompeii Forum

Most of Pompeii is streets lined with what used to be shops and homes that are all more or less in the same state of ruin. There are few, if any, identifying features remaining in any of them. “And this here is a what used to be some sort of business. Over here is the same thing. Etc.” The first one was nice, the second was curious because it was so similar, and then it turned to boredom. That is, until we arrived at the brothel.

pompeii penis

Yup, it’s a sidewalk penis

Our guide pointed out the slightly visible ancient Roman penis in the sidewalk that pointed visitors in the direction of the brothel district, which today is the most intact portion of the ruins of Pompeii. It’s such a popular destination that every tour stops there and has to wait for the tour ahead to move along before entering.

pompeii brothel

That might not be moss growing on the brothel bed

In Pompeii’s red light district, visitors can see the original stone bed used by prostitutes that still retains its crabs and syphilis (Mt. Vesuvius must have had a part in the preservation). Inside the brothel are frescoes that depict which sexual act was performed in each room (they had to cater to the illiterates among the population).

pompeii brothel

This looks like an interesting room for a break

Throughout the hot day we encountered many more historic ruins that pretty much looked the same. A few of the temples and the amphitheater stood out, as did the forum. Aside from the brothel, the public bath was also fairly well preserved, proving that the Romans had their priorities in safeguarding particular aspects of society from certain destruction.

pompeii tribunal

The Tribunal was still in decent shape

The roads still have large stones that served as crosswalks so residents wouldn’t have to walk through the sewer that was the street. These same stones had gaps that allowed carts to freely maneuver through the waste. I suppose because the people only bathed once every few months, the stench from their roads/sewers wasn’t noticeable.

I knew Pompeii was a thriving trade center in ancient Rome, but did know just how large the city was. I also didn’t know that prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the sea was right next to the city (it’s now miles away). Fortunately, with the clear weather, it’s easy to still see the volcano that buried the city almost 2,000 years ago.

pompeii street

One of the narrower streets

Toward the end of the tour, we passed the gated section of Pompeii that houses artifacts, including the preserved bodies that most of us have seen in history books or National Geographic. With exhaustion from the intense sun setting in and the crowds gathered around, I only took a brief glance at what I thought would be better displayed. I had incorrectly thought that the artifacts and preserved residents would be displayed throughout the ruins of Pompeii. It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

All jokes aside, Pompeii was an impressive half day out of Sorrento. It would’ve been better with a full-day tour though.

Have you visited Pompeii? Have you ever seen a more impressive prostitution district?

Colossal Colosseum Tour

Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
Dodging lions and wastin’ time”
-Bob Dlyan, When I Paint My Masterpiece

rome colosseum

I got more views of scaffolding at the Colosseum

On the last full day in Rome, my parents and I set out fairly early to tour the Colosseum. We had purchased our tickets the day before at the Roman Forum–the tickets are valid for 48 hours to enter each site once. Despite not having to wait in the excruciatingly long line in the summer sun to buy tickets, it still took a bit of time to get into the Colosseum. Had we known, we might have tried to get there an hour earlier to avoid such a crowd.

Welcome to the Colosseum, please wait in line to be fed to the lions and hippos

Welcome to the Colosseum, please wait in line to be fed to the lions and hippos

We had walked past the Colosseum numerous times because it wasn’t far from the hotel. I took plenty of photos of it at different times of day, usually when we were most exhausted from walking around Rome. It’s an impressive structure from the outside, but it elicits more of a sense of awe upon entering.

rome colosseum

The Colosseum is pretty big

The Colosseum is enormous, thus the Latin root. It is the inspiration for modern stadiums–the similarities in the design are everywhere, from the the seating to the entrances and exits. Contemporary stadium architects are still utilizing the design of a building that’s almost 2,000 years old.

rome colosseum

How many gladiators died in that basement before fighting for their lives?

If it weren’t for the blazing sun, I would’ve enjoyed just staring at the ruins within the walls. I could’ve watched the throngs of tourists gaze upon the history that epitomizes Rome as a tourist destination

Bas-relief at the Colosseum

Bas-relief at the Colosseum

My mom convinced me to download some of the free mp3s from Rick Steves to add some guidance to our self-guided tour of Rome (I also used some of the mp3s for Florence). I read through the text, which only half downloaded for some reason, and then handed the audio portion to my mom. She was shocked by the commentary about the depravity of Roman society–the numbers of people and animals killed during the entertainment. I was just surprised they didn’t fill in the time between killings with orgies, but I assume that came at night after witnessing all the gore and feasting upon the dead animals. I suppose the concession stands had an endless supply of meat to roast and serve throughout the events.colosseum-entrance

If we could have entered the lower level of the Colosseum, we would have stayed longer. Unfortunately, that area is only accessible on a guided tour–a fact we did not know before arriving. The basement area would have been interesting (and more shaded)–I could have seen the cells in which the gladiators were held before they entered the arena.colosseum-b&w

Have you been to the Colosseum? Did you get a cheesy photo with the plastic armor-clad gladiators?

Walking Through History in Rome

The Roman Forum from the Temple of Saturn

The Roman Forum from the Temple of Saturn

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. – Winston Churchill

It’s difficult to turn a corner in Rome without bumping into history. Of course, most of that history is just unrecognizable ruins, but it’s still noticeable.

After a few days of wandering around Rome’s confusing winding streets in search of the more popular historic sites, travelers encounter so many ruins that they all melt into a single memory. I have dozens of photos from around the city that I can’t identify as more than “some interesting Roman ruins.”

The Forum through Septimius Severus Arch

The Forum through Septimius Severus Arch

As I walked in the late-July heat of the intense sun through the Roman Forum in search of angles for interesting photos as well as a respite in the shade, I realized how impressive this must have looked when it was built.

Temple of Saturn

Temple of Saturn

There is a lot of beauty in the ruins at the Forum, but aside from a few select parts, most of it just blends together as nothing recognizable without a label.Roman-Forum2 Unlike some of the other major tourist stops in Rome, the Forum doesn’t feel so crowded because it is more spread out. If it wasn’t for the intense heat of summer, it would be a great place to sit and contemplate the history for a few hours, but the late-July heat definitely limits that experience.

The Hippodrome of Domitian

The Hippodrome of Domitian

I had to thank Jupiter, or whichever Roman deity is responsible, for the life-saving public fountains within the Forum grounds. Filling up water bottles with cold water made the walk through much more tolerable. Without the fountains, it probably would’ve been a much shorter walk through Roman history.

Mental Exhaustion at Cambodia’s Killing Fields

More than a few people asked why I would subject myself to a visit to S-21 and the Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It’s difficult to describe the reasons; I felt it was important to see these places to better understand Cambodia and the people.

cheong ek

Memorial stupa at Cheong Ek

One of the first things tourists notice in Cambodia is that this is a mostly undeveloped country and poverty is everywhere. Most visitors already know about the country’s dark history and what led to the present conditions, which are improving with an influx of foreign business investment. Despite reading some history of French colonialism, American bombing raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the Khmer Rouge, it’s difficult to imagine the horrors that Cambodia has endured. And this is what leads many tourists to visit such depressing historic sites.

As I found a tuk-tuk from the port to my hotel following my boat ride from Siem Reap, the driver asked what my plans were for my time in Phnom Penh. He gave me a reasonable price for a day (closer to half-day) at S-21 and the Killing Fields. I was non-committal, but he said he’d wait at my hotel around 9 am if I decided to go. After finding the average cost of hiring a driver for the day, I decided to take his offer the following morning.

I don’t know if it was a common route, but my tuk-tuk took me through a lot of dirt roads and side streets, which allowed me more time to witness the living conditions of most Cambodians. With the dirt roads, I was glad to have my pollution mask from Hanoi, even if it only kept the dirt off my face.

killing fields

An disturbingly peaceful view at Cheong Ek

The first stop was the Killing Fields at Cheong Ek. At Cheong Ek, visitors are given an audio tour of the grounds–the audio includes first-hand accounts of the horrors of living under the Khmer Rouge. These stories are more horrifying than any Hollywood film or Stephen King novel. The stories are made even more graphic when visitors sometimes come across bits of cloth poking through the ground–remnants of the mass graves that haven’t been uncovered. There are also desecrated Chinese graves in the area, as it was a burial site for Chinese in Cambodia for a long time before the Khmer Rouge came to power.

There is a memorial stupa that was built in 1988 near the entrance to the grounds at Cheong Ek that contains bones of those murdered at the site. The remains have been studied and documented to discover the torture endured and the final cause of death. The stupa contains 9,000 skulls from the approximately 17,000 people who were executed at Cheong Ek.

killing field

Many visitors leave trinkets for the victims of the Khmer Rouge

After walking around in the early morning heat, I headed to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, better known as S-21 prison, closer to the center of Phnom Penh. This former high school was where Pol Pot had at least 14,000 people sent, tortured, and interrogated before execution starting in 1976. Only seven people ever survived to tell of the horrors within that prison. There was even fencing put up around the buildings to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

S21 prison

Outside one of the buildings at S21

The museum left most of the rooms the way they were found after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. There are rooms with history of how the Khmer Rouge came to power and the horrors they inflicted on the population, including methods of torture and interrogation. Mostly, the rooms are filled with photographs of the prisoners–depressing photos of all the people who passed through the doors, including the elderly, women, children, and even babies. There were translated “confessions” that were signed after agonizing torture.

S21 room

One of the torture rooms

After their “confessions,” most of these prisoners and many others were taken to places like the Cheong Ek Killing Fields for execution.

S21 cells

The cells in converted classrooms at S-21

Total numbers vary on how many people were killed under Pol Pot’s rule. In 1976, the total population of Cambodia was about 8 million, and some estimates claim that 3 million people died in the three years of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.

After my visit to S-21, I sat down for a brief chat with my tuk-tuk driver. I could tell he was older than I was, which meant he was alive during the Khmer Rouge’s rule. I asked if he remembered anything from that time. He said he was a little too young to remember much, but he does recall hearing a lot of noise around his home, including guns, and his mother would take him and hide for days. He didn’t understand what any of it was until much later.

S21 photos

Photos of the victims who passed through S-21

On my visit to the Land Mine Museum in Siem Reap, Bill Morse, the tour guide and partner for the Landmine Relief Fund, gave an explanation of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. He asked a Cambodian friend how Pol Pot could empty an entire city in 48 hours. His friend said that the Khmer Rouge used loudspeakers to tell residents that American bombers were on their way. The population was still traumatized from years of bombings during the Vietnam War.

If it wasn’t for Pol Pot’s desire to reclaim land from Vietnam, the Vietnamese would’ve never invaded Cambodia, thus providing the opportunity for Cambodians to reclaim their country. Of course, Vietnam paid for its war against the Khmer Rouge when China invaded northern Vietnam because Chairman Mao was a great supporter of Pol Pot and China wanted to defend its ally. China generally omits its invasion of Vietnam from history books.

After this day, I was mentally exhausted. I asked my driver to drop me off at Wat Phnom. The walk around the temple and the walk back to my hotel helped clear my head a bit.

Finding Freedom in Boston

My first full day in Boston was spent on the Freedom Trail. As someone who enjoys history, the Freedom Trail was an absolute must for my first trip to Boston. Fortunately, the hostel was only a short walk from Boston Common and the start of the state house

It’s easy enough to follow the trail with the painted red line through the park and the red brick line in the sidewalk. Of course, if you’re like me and wander off, you might have a difficult time rediscovering the trail (or the direction you’re heading along it). I got a little lost when I walked down one street for some food and had to backtrack to Paul Revere’s house.

sidewalk boston

Just follow the red brick sidewalk

Following the red brick road, I was introduced to historic churches, chapels, houses, meeting places, and houses. There was even an old print shop by Paul Revere Mall in which a man was reproducing the Boston edition of the Declaration of Independence. What they didn’t teach me in history class was that there were multiple similar editions of the Declaration of Independence that were posted all around the cities, but few of those editions survived.printer

I learned to use printing presses in grad school, but haven’t been in a print shop since then. I found the process fascinating as I’ve never seen a press like this one.

old state house boston

The Old State House

I thought everything along the Freedom Trail was part of the National Park Service, but some of the museums and churches had entrance fees. Fortunately, they weren’t expensive. And since they were all air conditioned, it was well worth the price.

paul revere grave

Visiting Paul Revere

The trail provided me with something I’ve always enjoyed: a mix of architecture. I find it fascinating to stare at historic buildings surrounded by modern structures.

bunker hill

Bunker Hill from the Charlestown Bridge

Tour guides say the Freedom Trail is only about 2 miles, but it definitely is more than that. I mapped it out and it comes closer to 4 miles, not including time spent walking around the stops along the trail or getting lost in the weekend produce market. The weekend produce market is a worthwhile destination in its own right–I bought 6 organic plums and half a pound of rambutan for $2.

Picking up some cheap fresh fruit on a hot summer day

Picking up some cheap fresh fruit on a hot summer day

Aside from the oppressive heat and humidity, the historic walk through Boston was well worthwhile. Fortunately, I loaded with my water bottle with only ice before I set out in the morning, but that wasn’t enough to last the whole walk.

king's chapel boston

King’s Chapel

Next time I’m in Boston, I hope it’s not as hot and humid for a long walk through these historic areas. I was too tired to even bother to stop in any of the historic taverns for a drink. By the end, I just wanted to finish the trail and find a subway station that would lead me back to the hostel.